Bernard Lagat of the US wins the men's 1500m final in Osaka (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Berlin, Germany

Lagat aims at defending precious World Champs double

He may be well into his thirties, but middle distance US star Bernard Lagat has the motivation of a teenager when it comes to defending his historical World Championships double this summer in Berlin. With the support of his family and his well known dedication, Lagat has put last year’s disappointment behind and is now ready to take on his younger opponents.

[Note: A version of this story originally appeared in The IAAF Magazine, Vol 24, No. 2, August 2009.]

Few athletes can match Bernard Lagat’s career for longevity. And, as the three-time Olympian prepares for another season with his customary five weeks high altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona it is the defense of his historic 2007 IAAF World Championship 1500m/5000m titles that remains the top priority.

Now 34 years of age the Kenyan born American has watched younger athletes rise to prominence and then disappear while he maintains his enviable position amongst the world’s elite. Again he declares himself fit and able to fend off the latest challengers this season.

“There are so many younger athletes ten years younger than me, some of them are 20 years old, fourteen years younger,” he says. “These are young guys and I am still out there thinking 'if you are strong enough, come and beat me.  I am tough, and if you are not tough enough you know you aren’t going to beat Bernard Lagat.’”

“If they are tough and you are training well those people there are a lot of them who have given me a hard time. And sometimes I lose to them and they lose to me. That has given me the motivation to prove to the young guys ‘Hey it doesn’t matter the age, you can still be good.’”

A year ago he won both the 1500m and 5000m at the US Olympic Trials inching closer to his goal of achieving the double at the Beijing Olympics. But he failed to make the 1500m final in Beijing. Then he finished a well beaten 9th in the longer race and many wondered if age had finally caught up with him. Maybe it was time to put his two Olympic 1500m medals (he won bronze in 2000m and silver four years later) on the mantelpiece and retire.

The 1999 graduate of Washington State University, though, had other thoughts. For weeks he had concealed an Achilles tendon injury which had cost him valuable training time in the buildup to the Games. Nursing it to health became the immediate post-Olympic goal.

“I went to Germany to train for a week after the Olympic Trials and then I had big, big problems on my left Achilles,” he remembers. “It felt like it was going to pop whenever I ran.  It got worse and worse and even in the village I thought ‘it’s not going to be good.’ But I didn’t tell anybody except my agent James Templeton and my coach James Li. They knew I had problems. I kept treating it even during the Games.

“There were a lot of expectations from people that I was going to go and win. Even with all those problems I kept telling myself ‘I am still strong. I want to be strong.’ But you know what? There is always something called reality.”

Those who would question Lagat’s motivation after such a disappointing season don’t know the determination he possesses. Strong willed and talented he is afraid of no one. Nor has he backed off in his quest to defend both titles in Berlin this August.

“You know what motivates me this year? It’s the failure of having an injury and not coming anywhere close to a medal in Beijing. That was the biggest disappointment in my athletics career,” he declares. “In most of the major championships I have medalled and in this one I did not. So I am more motivated than ever to go to the podium in Berlin. It is easy to get up in the morning and know what I want to achieve. My motivation is to medal in Berlin and hopefully get the gold medal.”

Clearly excited about the future Lagat declares his intention to stick around for the 2011 IAAF World Championships and even the 2012 London Olympics when he will be 37 years old.

During this year’s camp in Flagstaff he shared a rented house with four-time US 10,000m champion Abdi Abdirahman and the pair did many of their training sessions together. Lagat trains with both the 1500m and 5000m in mind and never goes beyond 65 miles a week in training. Most of it is quality running. Rarely does he go farther than twelve miles and on many days the mileage is split into two workouts. If this training sounds a little light there’s not many who’d question its effectiveness?

Lagat is the quintessential professional and running is his business. Little will distract him from his goals. Occasionally he and Abdirahman would go out to a local internet cafe have a cup of coffee and communicate online with friends.

The routine was broken when his wife Gladys and their two young children came up from the family home in Tucson for two weeks. They would have stayed longer but 3-year-old Miika is now in pre-school. On the longer tempo runs they followed Lagat in a van with Miika, cheering from his car seat and taking photographs of his dad. As he describes the scene it is evident Lagat misses his family.  But this is the sacrifice of a world class athlete these days.

When they are together Lagat enjoys barbecuing and watching cartoons on the Disney Channel though he points out that Miika’s television time is restricted to ninety minutes a day. His dad, on the other hand, spends inordinate amounts of time watching CNN and Bloomberg News plus the occasional NBA basketball game. But he has another project that keeps him enthused.

For the past three years he has supported his neighbour, Anita Kellman, with a “Beat Cancer Boot Camp”. The organisation conducts twice a week military style training for breast cancer survivors.  Lagat sits on the board and helped coordinate a 5km obstacle course in March. Gladys meanwhile is Kellman’s ‘right hand person’.

A racing schedule has been carefully mapped out with the coach and agent in order to prepare him for the double in Berlin. He will race an assortment of races including distances of 1500m, the mile, 3000m and 5000m and run the double at the US Championships.

“My intentions are to run two events in Berlin,” he reaffirms, “I have the qualification for both events now. I can’t see any reason why I won’t do that. Not running two would be like giving up something. But the reality is I will be doing the 1500m first just like in Osaka. The 5000m comes after. So it would not be wise for me to back off doing the 5000m after I am done with the first event.”

The line in the sand has been drawn and the young challengers no doubt will have their hands full with a healthy Bernard Lagat. Retirement is not yet in the cards.

Paul Gains for the IAAF